Ha Long Bay was the catalyst for our Vietnam trip. Two years ago I saw some shots of the Unesco World Heritage Site on Pinterest, and immediately started day dreaming about seeing those gargantuan limestone rock formations with my own eyes. The bay, situated in northern Vietnam, has more than 1,600 islands, most of which are completely uninhabited by humans, and hold ecological wonders ranging from hidden lagoons and monkeys to jaw-dropping caves and lush, tropical terrain. The best way to experience the bay is on a boat, and there are many options for visitors, ranging from day trips to week-long cruises. Kai and I debated a lot about what kind of boat trip we wanted to book. We decided to do Ha Long Bay early on in our Vietnam travels, as we expected to still be a little jet lagged, and the cruises we saw offered pre-planned itineraries and early nights, which sounded like a great combination for our jet lagged brains. As Ha Long Bay was the highlight of our time in Vietnam (at least for me) I really wanted to do a two night cruise. However, the more we read into reviews and schedules, we found that often the second day of the two night itineraries was spent on a smaller boat as the main vessel picked up new passengers, and often the food and activities were repeated on day two to accommodate new guests. So although we could have easily spent a handful of nights in Ha Long, we opted for a one night cruise which in the end wound up being just right. Once we knew how long we wanted to be in the harbor, we started looking at one night cruises. Booking.com had a huge selection, including some that were top rated by travelers around the web. We found that there were cruises to suit all budgets, with some being dirt cheap (buffet meals and board games on deck) and others being incredibly premium (hot tubs, private suites, five star chefs, in-room massages). We landed somewhere in the middle, wanting good food, a comfortable bed, a non-rowdy crowd, and an itinerary that was fun but not overwhelming. We booked with Aphrodite Cruise which was €319 for one night and included activities, food, non-alcoholic beverages, and of course our room on the boat. We noticed that Aphrodite was less expensive than a lot of other cruises that looked to be of the same caliber (most going for €600 a night) so we thought we got a steal . . . until I started digging deep into reviews (post booking) and realized that one of their ships had burnt down in the harbor the year before! No one died but people did get injured and lost their personal items, as the ship was totally destroyed and passengers were forced to jump off the boat and into the bay! We never asked anyone officially, but assumed that the fire probably caused some reputation damage as well, and that was why the cruise was much less expensive than similar competitors. That said, the trip was outstanding, the food was brilliant, the actives were a blast, and the crew was phenomenal. If I hadn’t read about the fire online, I would have been baffled as to why the cruise was so reasonably priced.We kicked off our trip to Ha Long early in the morning. We arranged for a luxury transfer (that was €50 extra) to pick us up and drop us off in Hanoi. We were scooped up at around 8am, and ushered into a big comfortable van with wifi and air con. We picked up two other couples before driving to the bay, which took about four hours with a short rest stop in the middle of the trek. We were greeted at the docks with tea and cookies, and after the other five couples we were traveling with had checked in, we all boarded the boat.From the harbor, the bay didn’t feel too spectacular, and at first glance was honestly a bit dirty and industrial, with trash floating in the water and construction sites located all along the water.I was in high spirits as my stomach had finally stopped feeling like it was being jabbed by a thousand knives, and although I didn’t dare veer from my pretzel diet quite yet, I was excited to hit the high seas!You can tell I’m still sick and looked pretty wrecked in the photo above, but whatever – memories ;) First thing we did on board was check into our cabin, which was roomy and smelled of fresh lemongrass. We were invited to head to the dining room when we were ready for our first meal on board – a long leisurely lunch as we set sail for the bay.I’ve never been on a cruise before, and while I wouldn’t quite consider this your typical all-inclusive midnight buffet kinda excursion, Kai and I did have the best time being on a boat for 48 hours with 10 total strangers. There was a gay couple from Russia, a very conservative and quiet couple from the Middle East, an older couple from Korea, and a Bulgarian couple who were just about our age. Kai is German and I am American, so muddled all together, there were a several nationalities on board which was fascinating to observe, plus an incredibly fun and lively Vietnamese staff. One thing that made us chuckle – each couple claimed a table at the window during our first lunch, and then returned to that same table for each meal following. One morning I got to the dining room first and being cheeky decided to snag another couple’s table to see what would happen. The displaced couple took our spot and then everyone else went straight to the same table again. I’ve never been on a cruise before, but is this normal ship behavior?! Anyways, above is a picture of Kai at OUR table, where we sat for three out of four meals ;)Also worth noting is how we totally lucked out regarding the number of people on our cruise. I believe our ship could accommodate up to 30 guests, but there were only 12 total on the two days we’d booked. There were almost as many staff on board the boat as passengers! Which meant that the food was served faster, our tours were more intimate, and we spent less time waiting for other people to join in on activities. If you’re thinking of taking a Ha Long Bay cruise, I’d suggest booking one that caters to smaller groups, as traveling with 10 others seemed like just the right amount.This lighting isn’t particularly flattering for Kai or myself, but again, memories ;)Our first lunch was delicious, and Kai totally lucked out, because he got to eat two of everything (as my tummy was not quite ready for mango salads and summer rolls)! That said, the ship’s staff were so kind and accommodating, and upon hearing I was not feeling well, they offered to make me something special that would be a bit lighter on my stomach. At this point, I was starting to feel better, and was able to take nibbles here and there of our food, so I politely declined. But I have to give a shout out to the staff of Aphrodite who were more than happy to provide an alternative dish if you didn’t like one of the courses or had special diet considerations. They also always checked to see if we wanted more, so although it wasn’t necessarily a buffet, we never went hungry and could always have seconds of our favorite dishes!Also, how cute is this plateware?!By the time we finished lunch, our ship had really started to make it out into the bay. Between each course, we wandered out onto the deck with our drinks and just watch the islands slowly rove by.My favorite part of the cruise was our down time. Our surroundings were so unbelievable, and I loved the quiet moments on deck, relaxing and taking it all in – mental camcorder continually rolling ;) Our room was in down in the belly of the ship (even though the boat was full, we didn’t get an upgrade to a second floor room with a balcony – boo!) but I have to say I really loved being downstairs. In the dining room and on the ship’s rooftop deck, we could take in the view from different vantage points, and our room offered a unique view that couldn’t be found elsewhere on board.
After an hour of down time following our lunch, we suited up for a cave adventure.Sung Sôt is on Bo Hòn Island, and it is one of the biggest and most impressive caves of Ha Long Bay.
You need a ticket to enter to cave, although this was covered in our cruise fee. It took about 10 minutes to walk up the many steps leading to the mouth of the cave, but once we were inside, we were completely awed by what we found.So appologies in advance for the million limestone rock formation photos – but how unbelievable are the rocks in this cave?!
When we got into the second, larger chamber, my jaw almost hit the floor!It was huge – a stunning creation I could not believe was created by the hands of mother nature.I’ve never seen such a beautiful cave, and probably never will again.
Our guide did an awesome job of explaining not only the history of the cave, but the many interpretations of the rock formations within. The below is said to be a turtle, which is a lucky animal in Vietnam and brings wisdom if you touch it’s head! which I promptly did as we walked by ;)
We also learned that in ancient Vietnamese, Halong means descending dragon. You can read about the history of the bay’s name here (it’s literally something out of Game of Thrones) but in a nutshell, it’s believed that thousands of years ago, dragons descended from the sky to protect the people of Vietnam. Warding off enemies, fire and emeralds rained from the dragons’ mouthes, killing the intruders and creating a giant wall which protected the people of ancient Vietnam. Over centuries, it’s said that the emerald wall disintegrated into the many limestone islands of Ha Long Bay. And so this dragon above is considered especially lucky – an icon of a descending dragon in descending dragon bay.
Also, our tour guide didn’t mention the image below, but what’s up with this giant dick?! lol Love how there’s just this glowing red penis in the middle of the cave and no one addressed it – unless I am crazy and seeing things here?! But come on, I know you can see it too!Also, shout out to Aphrodite for picking the best times to visit the bay’s attractions – at the cave and again the next morning while kayaking, we had the sights almost all to ourselves, and really appreciated the space and quiet time to take in our surroundings.
After spending an hour roaming in perpetual awe while exploring the cave, we hopped on a small boat that took us back to our cruise ship.We had a few hours of down time before dinner, conveniently timed with the ship’s happy hour. And that’s when things started to get real . . . and by real, I mean realllll drunk ;)
Kai and I ordered buy one, get one free margaritas, but somehow with the language barrier we wound up with four beverages at once.Which we enjoyed on deck as a thick layer of fog settled onto the bay.
When life gives you too many mojitos, you don’t say ‘no’ to life.By the time we got to the cooking demonstration before dinner, we were pretty tipsy . . . However, I don’t think the boat staff minded that we were tipsy, and even invited us to get in on the cooking action!Just a casual photo to commemorate OUR table on the cruise ship ;)And another to remember how silly we looked while making spring rolls!Kai really got in there, and I think of all the guys, he was clearly having the best time ;) Not long after, the kitchen had deep-fried our summer rolls and invited us to sample the creations we’d just made.Which tipsy Kai and Ali dug into gladly. While we waited for the rest of our meal to be prepared, we went back to to the deck, which was beautifully lit for the evening hours.
How eerie and beautiful are these ships at sea at night?!
Back inside we dug into dinner, which was fantastic (also, you can tell I am 100 x more healthy in this photo below – what a difference a day and a few margaritas can make!)We were then surprised by the staff who told us that we could nab the bottle of champagne in our room and drink it for free! I don’t know if this is because we’d already run up a pretty big bar tab of wine, beer, and spirits, or if the crew were just incredibly generous, but either way, we weren’t about to say no to bubbles!
After dinner and entertainment in the dining room, we were invited to go our own way, or partake in squid finishing out on the deck. Big spot lights were directed into the water, attracting dozens of squid, and so we decided to try our luck at squid fishing, champagne in hand.Kai caught this cute little guy, which was guiltily plopped into a bucket for the kitchen staff to fry up. I then decided to try my hand at catching a squid, and was joined by a few others who had just wrapped up dinner and wanted to give it a shot as well!Despite seeing dozens of little squid darting through the water, only one other person caught a squid that evening . . . . And of course it was the one person who felt INCREDIBLY bad about it. Sorry little guy! Am I crazy or are these little squids totally pet material?!The next morning, Kai got up early for 6am tai chi on the roof deck. I joined not long after, as the morning’s lesson was wrapping up, just in time to witness the most unbelievable sunrise in the bay.The fog lifted just enough for us to experience a rainbow of sorbet colors melding in the sky.I took about 700 photos, in shock at how stunning the harbor could look early in the morning mist.It’s not hard to see why Ha Long Bay is one of the natural wonders of the world.
After a light breakfast, we were invited to go boating in Ha Long Bay’s hidden lagoon. In the morning, when the tide is low, a mouth to the lagoon emerges from the sea which can be accessed by small boats. We were the first ones there, and other than the screeches of monkeys and birds, and the sound of our paddles lapping in the water, our surroundings were eerily quiet.Kai and I opted to rent a tandem kayak, while the other passengers on our ship rode in together on a small captained row-boat.It felt like we’d just paddled into the Land Before Time, our surroundings serene and untouched by humans.
After doing a few laps of the lagoon, other boats started to arrive and our guide shouted out to us that it was time to return to the ship. She also offered to grab a photo for us, so we entrusted her with Kai’s iPhone camera which she dangled over the edge of the boat to help us get the below photo :)We paddled back to the small dock just past the mouth of the lagoon, and returned our kayak, all while looking very sexy in our bright orange life vests ;)We then went back to our room and changed for one final lunch on board the ship as we sailed back into port.I still can’t believe this was the view (below) out of our bedroom window. Sailing through the giant limestone rocks of Ha Long Bay was a spectacular sight . . . . . . one that was truly worth flying half way around the world for! While Kai and I were sad to leave Ha Long, we had another 1.5 weeks of Vietnamese adventures ahead! We loved sailing with Aphrodite and would highly recommend the cruise line – everything from our room to the food to the activities were spectacular – however we were excited to go off-script and spend the next few weeks pursuing activities at our own pace, rather than following an itinerary. One night was just enough to take in the beauty and serenity of the bay :)
More Vietnamese adventures to follow!